The ODI Cricket World Cup is just ten months away and whilst most competing countries have a fair idea of the composition of their squads, the Sri Lankan selectors find themselves going back to the drawing board to try and choose a team that will fly the Lion Flag high at the world cup in England in June 2019.
All is not lost – the cupboard is not exactly bare. In fact, Sri Lanka has never been short of talent but the lack of consistency and commitment at the highest level is quite shocking. Presently, the Sri Lanka cricket team is going through its worst ever slump in the one-day format since its great triumph at the 1996 World Cup. Last year, 2017, was perhaps the worst ever where the team played 29 ODIs but won just five with 23 losses – including three 5-0 whitewashes – and one no decision. Between July and October the team suffered 12 consecutive defeats.
The recent ODI series against the touring South Africa team has been a reality check for the players and administrators – if they ever really needed one! After having registered two very emphatic wins in the preceding two test matches most Sri Lankans expected more of the same from a confident team. However, things all went pear shaped from thereon when the ODI series began. The hosts were soundly thrashed in the first three games conceding the five-match series without even the semblance of a contest. The defeats marked a record 11 straight losses to the Proteas in ODIs over the last few years.
What was most galling was the manner of those defeats – the disparity between the two teams in those games were so stark that there was hardly a hint of a contest in the games. They did things quite strangely too whilst being outplayed in every aspect of the game.
In the first match the frontline batsmen struggled to get going and failed to put up a decent total, in the second game the team dropped several catches and according to skipper Angelo Mathews fielded “like schoolboys” and in the third the bowlers let them down badly, conceding a record total.
Everything seemed dark and dismal for Sri Lanka cricket until suddenly there was some light at the end of the tunnel when the Lankans snatched a dramatic last over win in the fourth ODI where everything seemed to suddenly click. With the series already sewn up, the Proteas rested a few key players and tested some of their bench strength but the way the hosts performed they almost seemed a totally different team to the side that had played in the previous three games.
Without their injured skipper Faf du Plessis and key strike bowler Kagiso Rabada the Proteas were certainly not the same formidable force but the fact that the Lankans were able to win in the manner that they did is in itself a huge relief. The batting seemed to click at last and Upul Tharanga and Niroshan Dickwella produced the highest opening stand for some time and the middle order too weighed in with useful contributions maintaining a good momentum. All-rounders Thisara Perera and Dasun Shanaka provided the fireworks at the end plundering 104 runs in the last ten overs.
Shanaka’s innings was probably the best tonic for the selectors and his name should be immediately pencilled in for the World Cup because he did well in the English conditions on his last tour too.
Thisara Perera and Shanaka seem to be the only certainties for the World Cup squad so far and it is their ability to play the big shots that can change a game that makes their presence so vital in the team.
Skipper Angelo Mathews cannot continue to be just one-dimensional and play as a specialist batsman. Sri Lanka desperately needs him to be able to bowl even five overs in every game. He alone has the ability to make the difference between a good team and an excellent champion side.
Niroshan Dickwella and Tharanga have proved to be a good opening combination and there is also Kusal Perera and the presently banned Dhanuskha Gunatilleka who should all make the final squad of 16.
Dhananjaya de Silva could be a solid presence at number three with Kusal Mendis at number four. Mathews, Thisara Perera and Dasun Shanaka at numbers five, six and seven provide a strong middle order.
The ability of players like Kusal Perera, Tharanga and de Silva to bat anywhere in the order is a big bonus to the team who can make adjustments to the batting order according to the match situation.
Akila Dhananjaya has done enough to fit in as the first choice spinner with back up coming from left arm spinner Lakshan Sandakhan. Leg spinner Jeffrey Vandersay could be another option worth having in the final squad.
The fast bowling trio of Suranga Lakmal, Kasun Rajitha and Lahiru Kumara should all make the squad with a fourth from Madhushanka
The availability of test captain Dinesh Chandimal might pose a problem to the selectors because he may have to play as a specialist batsman with Dickwella now seemingly settled in the role of first choice wicketkeeper.
Sri Lanka has just about 20 matches from now till the world cup and their focus must be to build a strong champion team that emulates the 1996 champions. Sri Lanka has earned a reputation as being players for the big stage where they have somehow lifted their game every time they played in World Cups. There is certainly light at the end of the tunnel but let’s hope it is not just the light of another oncoming train!
Probable Sri Lanka squad for World Cup:
Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Perera, Dhanushka Gunatileka, Upul Tharanga, Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Thisara Perera, Dasun Shanaka, Akila Dhananjaya, Lakshan Sandakhan, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha, and Shehan Madushanka.